First, thank you Jonathan Miller. My father, Jerome “Buddy” Cooper, wrote a short biography of his father for my children. I have grandchildren now. I need get busy!
Some here tonight, including you who have read Rabbi Miller’s book of eulogies, know Buddy Cooper “made trouble” for everyone, even rabbis. He called himself a country lawyer, and indeed he was born in the small mining town of Brookwood in Tuscaloosa County, where his father had a store. With undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and his clerkship for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, my father could have practiced law with a big city firm. Instead he chose to return to Birmingham to represent working men and women seeking fair treatment and decent lives.
Buddy never forgot the mine disasters of his first six years in Brookwood, the screams of women rushing from their homes in the night when bells signaled a collapse or fire in the mine. It was not right. My father said and did what he thought was right and in accord with America’s promises. My father was brave, even fearless. But his was often a lone voice. There were threats of bombs, bricks thrown through windows, and we children were never allowed to answer the telephone. During those years of racial, social and labor strife, Birmingham thought his progressive opinions and the labor unions he represented simply wrong; many later came to respect him.
My father chose to support those without voices, white and black, those who couldn’t vote and who received inadequate wages for their labor; those who worked in unsafe conditions; and those without decent education or housing. Ostracized, even by some members of his own congregation, he held tenaciously to his ideals of truth and law, of justice, fairness, and equality.
His moral compass was steady, his principles constant. He spoke his truth even to power. With all his heart he believed that being a good citizen in a great land carried with it the responsibility of civic duty. Democracy itself depended upon it. His goal was to leave his children what his father had promised him, not a fortune, but a good name.
And he has done just that. Strangers often tell us how he helped them. With one simple statement U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first African-American federal judge, closed a 16th Street Baptist memorial panel discussion about contributions made by white members of the community during the Civil Rights era. Judge Clemon concluded, “Really there is only one white individual who made a truly substantive and lasting difference in the lives of our African American community. That is Jerome A. “Buddy” Cooper.”
Dad’s labor law practice was unparalleled in the South. He changed and enhanced lives by using the legal process to achieve equal pay for equal work. In a totally segregated society, he brought white and black workers together in the same union halls, in the same training programs, in the same jobs.
He assisted in the Reynolds v. Sims case, the Supreme Court decision of 1964 which changed American government with its “one man, one vote” principle. He assisted in settlement of the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights Demonstrations by obtaining funds to provide bail to release demonstrators from jail; he became a founding member of the Committee on Community Affairs, whose weekly meetings provided the first regular bi-racial communication in Birmingham.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy invited my father to a White House meeting of attorneys which evolved into the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law; he was a member for decades. With the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, he was given the First Annual Birmingham Pledge Award, and after his death he received the Arthur D. Shores Justice Award.
What were the sources of Jerome Cooper’s certainty and bravery in difficult times? What made my father the man we knew?
I draw upon countless documents, many now in the Birmingham Library Archives. Most importantly, I have his personal files: a biography of his father; random dictated “memories”; and his journal, a sort of “ethical will”. He had an extraordinary memory, and he wrote exceedingly well. Even his heavily annotated and corrected prayerbooks, filled with opinions about everything from grammar to ritual, are treasures.
Three people were particularly crucial in my father’s life. The most important was his father, Marks Benjamin Cooper, who fled Lithuania’s military conscription for Alabama at age 13. Dad considered Marks self-educated. I disagreed. True, he bought all of Dickens and learned English alone; true, he had no schooling in America. But there was a bar mitzvah in Lithuania, and, from Marks’ letters and the generosity with which he helped others in his community, one must assume there was at least Torah study in the shtetl and, briefly, because he had been a good student, in the nearest city, probably Vilnius/Vilna.
In his proud biography of Marks, Buddy tells us what he learned from his father: the duty to make of himself a good and honest person; that the Ten Commandments are non-negotiable. Duty to nation, community and family are understood. Loyalty is expected. Dishonesty is just that, dishonesty. If your family can sacrifice and manage to send children to college, you must decline scholarships so someone more needy can attend. Buddy declined a college scholarship; in turn, I did the same. On the day of Pearl Harbor, one enlists; Marks well understood why his son should go, but he wept.
I believe Marks imparted wisdom from hallowed Jewish sources, but I know my father honored his inherited Jewish faith in his own way. Reform Judaism’s understanding of the need to adapt the ancient words of Torah to the world of today appealed to Marks first, then to his son. Both lived according to the essentials of our religion and considered moral behavior more important than ritual practices. Both believed fervently in the brotherhood of man, in America’s promise of equality and freedom for all and in the necessity of work toward that end. Torah undergirded the lives of both, but my father would give his father most of the credit for the man he became. In his final journal Dad recalled the loss, when he was in his 20s, of his father: “Not a day of my waking life goes by without a brief recall of the day of his death.” Buddy’s high school Latin teacher, Clara Belle Sinn, taught him far more than a so-called dead language. She opened new worlds to him and suggested the direction he should take. He learned and loved her Latin; he continued in college, and during WWII discovered he could communicate with Europeans who knew no English. At almost 80, Buddy was again taking and reading Latin! Miss Sinn introduced him to classical authors, and, through them, to classical virtues: veritas (honesty), pietas (patriotism and devotion to others); comitas (courtesy); virtus (the capacity for effective human action). He taught us we are each shaped by how we choose to act. Miss Sinn asked Buddy if he planned to go to college. “Yes”, he replied, “Georgia Tech for engineering.” “Have you thought of Harvard, Buddy?” “No, Miss Sinn.” My father went to Harvard and Harvard Law School. Leaving one’s home for the diversity of views and people elsewhere should be an essential part of everyone’s education, he thought.
Buddy at age 24 became the US. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s first law clerk in 1937, serving three exhilarating years in Washington (where I was born).
Alabama Senator Hugo Black was a strong New Deal, FDR Democrat. He supported liberal policies and civil liberties and was a major influence on the Court, serving until 1971. He led the expansion of the Bill of Rights and individual liberties, and he was part of the court majority that ended segregation in America. Justice Black had an obvious impact on his young law clerk, who remained close to Black and his family all his life.
My father not only absorbed Black’s constitutional philosophy, the Judge also reinforced Buddy’s resolve to push for what he believed was right, regardless of criticism. Replying to a 1946 letter from my dad referring to public criticism Black had received, the Justice writes, “You and I know very well indeed that any man who stands for positions of any advance nature at all is always subject to criticism by those who get most benefit from maintenance of the status quo. No man could ever hold public office who is unable to accept with equanimity the best or the worst invectives that can be hurled at him. Nothing that has been said or done will alter my course.”
Nothing did, my father said. Much the same could be said of my father and of his optimistic, persistent effort at synthesis of the essence of Judaism with the yet unrealized ideals of America’s founders.
SERMON—My Father’s Legacy—Civil Rights and Beyond
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
January 13, 2017 – Martin Luther King Weekend
My father, Judea Miller, has cast a long and challenging shadow over my life. This is a good thing. He died as a young man, at the age of 64. After 22 years of his being gone, I still think of him as though he were with me. My father was a superb rabbi, a passionate Jew, a generous and loving father and husband, an iconoclast, and a man who was wonderful with words and sometimes reckless in his actions. As you know, my father was passionate about civil rights. I have spoken about this in the congregation with some frequency. But he was also passionate about Israel, Soviet Jewry, exploited farm workers, his opposition to the Vietnam War, fair housing, women’s rights, gay and lesbian inclusion, and opposition to the death penalty. My father could talk a blue streak about any of these issues. He was a prolific writer. This is how he was known to the world outside.
I also want to mention how profoundly kind and giving he was to his family and the people he served as a rabbi. He was still the rabbi serving a large congregation in Rochester, New York when he died. I will never forget the outpouring of affection for him, and the stories of people who shared with me his kindnesses over his decades of service. My father grew as a human being, spiritually, even as he grew weaker physically. He grew to embrace the humility that comes from true greatness and strength. Golda Meir was fond of quoting the Yiddish saying, “Don’t be so humble, you’re not so great.” My father was a great man whose strength I try to emulate, and whose weaknesses I try to avoid. He has given me a strong legacy.
Where did my father’s compassion for the underdog come from? Why did he seek out the causes of the day which turned out to be on the correct side of history, by the way? What motivated my dad to be out front leading the charge, where it would have been easier to sit back and give lip service, or easier yet, to say nothing at all?
I don’t know. I can only guess.
Perhaps it had to do with his family of origin. He was the youngest child of three. His father David was older, gentle and erudite. He was an immigrant from southern Poland who was a successful businessman and lost it all in 1930, the year my Dad was born. My grandmother, Yetta, was seven years younger and feisty. She could speak before she would think, and she was a domineering personality. I wonder how much of my father’s willingness to stand up to the injustices of the world came from his childhood in the Bronx standing up for himself as the baby in a family that was quick, verbal, and at times forceful? That had to play a part in it. I will leave that for my psychodynamicly astute wife to figure out.
My father always stood up for himself as a person and as a Jew. At times, he would tell me of his childhood and how he had to fight for himself as a Jew. The streets of the Bronx were tough, even then. And he and a group of Jewish kids would defend themselves against the Italian and Irish Catholic kids who would set on them after Hebrew School calling him and his friends Christ killers.
The powerlessness of the Jewish people during the Shoah undoubtedly had an influence on him. When he was a child, no more than 8 or 9, my grandparents David and Yetta adopted two boys from southern Poland, cousins to my father and his older brother Calvin. boys were the same ages and had the same names, Kalman and Yehuda. They squeezed a couple of beds and a dresser into their rooms, and prepared for the boys to come live with them. My grandfather David even booked passage on a ship from Gdansk to New York on September 15, 1939. The Nazis attacked Poland on September 1st. Kalman and Yehuda made their way to Gdansk, but the ship did not sail. y took their papers to the American Consulate, and the officials there had more to worry about than two Jewish boys. The boys were sent back on the streets and they disappeared. Coincidentally and tragically, a few years before he died, my father was on a rabbinic mission to Poland and visited the notorious Treblinka Death Camp. He casually flipped through a book of records kept by the Nazis, and found his two brothers, their ages and cities of origin mentioned there among the gassed Jews. He was shaking from the experience.
My father identified with the underdog, with the powerless and with the people who were lost on the streets and shunted aside. I think that this legacy came from his experience as a child and his experience as a Jew. He would never be silent. He could never be silent. And my mother too, colluded with my father’s activities. She really did not want him to go to Mississippi in 1962 and 1963. I remember their discussions. When they were passionate about something, well—how best to put it—they had a way of communicating that was quite vocal but not very effective. And I remember their passions and their fears. Still, she supported him. When my father wanted to resign his commission, and by the way—his pension, from the Army reserves to protest the Vietnam War, she agreed with him. When someone threw a brick through our living room window, and we received ominous and threatening phone calls late at night, she stood by him. And she supported him when he was attacked by people in his synagogue who were angry at him for his prophetic stance and his outspoken nature—sometimes threatening his job and his status. The two of them were partners. He was the front man, and she went along on his ride. (By the way, she also determined that she needed a career of her own and a role beyond the “rabbi’s wife.” My mother went to law school full time and became an attorney—while raising a family at the same time. My father was her biggest cheerleader.)
My dad had a fearlessness that bordered on unreality. He believed that his passion, his words and his self-sacrifice could change the world. He believed that the mission of making the world a fairer and more just world depended on him. I am not sure whether he had an enormous oversized ego, or a small undersized ego. But he was passionate about his passions, and he made sure to be in the center of every storm that came his way. He was not ever worried about being popular or being secure, or at least not that I knew. He believed that being respected was the way a rabbi should conduct himself and direct his energies.
My father mellowed as he grew older. I was sort of happy to see him mellow, and I also missed the firebrand. He suffered ill health, and he turned to embrace the gifts of his spirit. But even in his last more gentle decade of life, he never stopped pushing. He was the first senior rabbi of a major congregation to hire a woman, Roz Gold, as his assistant. They loved each other. He took care of gays and lesbians when they were considered outcasts and deviant. He was kind to the disabled and compassionate to the sick.
In my mind, there is no difference between the firebrand for the causes and the gentle soul who had compassion for people. I learned later in my life that his causes were not about the Vietnamese, or the African-Americans pursuing dignity, or the poor forced to live in urban slums, or the exploited farm workers, or oppressed Jews, or even the criminals on death row. His causes were about people. He had compassion. He could feel the pain of others. And as a rabbi living in the post-Shoah world, he felt the weight of history on his shoulders.
I am proud of my father, and my mother too. They have left me with a profound legacy. May they rest in peace.